Matthew Arnold once dubbed Oxford the ‘city of dreaming spires’, an appropriate epithet given the ornate architecture that dominates the city’s skyline. From the Radcliffe Camera to Carfax Tower, Oxford is full of beautiful monuments that have lasted for generations.
However, in the shadow of the towering spires lies a very different reality: it is the world of students who definitely don’t have the time to dream – they are too busy rushing to tutorials, downing coffee by the pint and spending their nights raving in Freud. Here’s my insider’s guide to what it’s really like studying at one of the world’s oldest universities.
Contrary to popular opinion, Oxford students do occasionally venture outside of the library. While the workload is undeniably heavy, there is always time for a coffee break with friends at The Missing Bean, a pint at the King’s Arms (popular with President Bill Clinton) or a riverside picnic at Port Meadow. On Wednesdays, freshers can be found cramming into Park End and dancing until the early hours of the morning, while slightly classier college formals provide the perfect opportunity to don a billowing gown, enjoy a three-course meal and place bets on which one of your classmates will become the next prime minister.
2. Blood, sweat and ballgowns
It’s true what they say: work hard, play harder, and no one works or plays harder than an Oxford student. After exams have finally come to an end, your tears have dried and blood pressure returned to normal, you’re rewarded with extravagant balls that make you forget the psychological trauma of the past few months. There’s music, food, fairground rides and, of course, unlimited alcohol. Keble College’s 2017 ball even had performances by AJ Tracey and Zak Abel. Unfortunately, Oxford ball tickets can be expensive, which doesn’t exactly help its elitist reputation. I managed to attend three balls this year without paying a single penny. The secret? Just volunteer to work at a stall for a couple of hours and you get the ticket for free!
3. Public enemy number one
As an Oxford student, there is one thing that will strike fear into your heart like no other – the sight of a tourist with a camera draped around their neck. Oxford is one of the UK’s most popular tourist destinations. People flock from all over the world to walk the same halls as Oscar Wilde, Hugh Grant and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. They come here to gaze in awe at the ancient buildings, visit the many museums and escape the smog of London. I get it, I really do. But having to navigate swarms of families and school students when I’m trying to get to a lecture is not what I signed up for. At every corner there is someone trying to take that perfect snap for Instagram. By this point, I suspect that I’ve featured in a thousand strangers’ photos. If I see one more couple taking selfies by the Rad Cam gate I’m going to scream.
4. Walking in a fictional wonderland
Going to Oxford is a nerd’s equivalent of visiting Disneyland. Every step you take, you are reminded that you are walking in the footsteps of some of your favourite authors and fictional characters. Oxford has more published authors per square mile than anywhere else in the world! From J.R.R. Tolkien to C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman, authors have been inspired by this beautiful city and it has left a mark on their works: the latitude of Hobbiton is the same as Oxford’s and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is set in the historic city. Located on St Mary’s Passage, you’ll find Mr Tumnus’ lamp-post and the door to Narnia, embossed with the regal face of Aslan. Living in Oxford literally gives you the chance to live in your favourite fantasy worlds, from Middle Earth to Narnia.
5. Books, books, and more books
Speaking of books, Oxford is home to one of the largest bookshops in the world – Blackwell’s. Founded in Oxford in 1879, the shop has become an Oxford institution and now has chains all over the country. While it looks like any other book shop from the outside, its hidden gem is the Norrington Room, the world’s largest room devoted to book sales. With over three miles of shelving and approximately 150,000 books – including first editions from writers such as Seamus Heaney and Terry Pratchett – entering the Norrington Room will make you feel like Aladdin descending into the Cave of Wonders.
6. Exam rituals
It is no secret that Oxford is an eccentric institution with lots of odd rules and traditions. Even exams are not exempt. Students are required to sit their exams in sub fusc, a black and white uniform complete with cap and gown. However, these uniforms don’t stay pristine for long. After the last exam, students get ‘trashed’ by their friends: they are pelted with confetti, silly string and shaving foam as they chug (Tesco-brand) prosecco from the bottle, finally jumping into the River Cherwell to wash it all away – a perfect, exuberant end to weeks of studying and stress.
7. Can spring be far behind?
May Day is the highlight of the Oxford calendar. Every year, in the early hours of the morning on the first of May, students and locals alike gather on Magdalen bridge to celebrate the coming of spring. As the sun rises, the celestial choir of Magdalen College sings hymns from the Great Tower and the bells ring out over the city. It is truly a unique, almost ethereal, experience. Pubs and cafes open their doors early especially for this occasion, and it is lovely to see so many people pausing their busy lives for a few hours and coming together.
The best thing about living and studying in Oxford is the fact that you can straddle two completely different worlds simultaneously: the ancient, sometimes bizarre world of tradition and ritual, alongside the intense, vibrant world of the present. Studying in Oxford is really unlike anything else you will ever experience. Treasure it while you can.
Kyriaki Kyriacou, University of Oxford English graduate